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Remembering Harry from New Jersey Ave.

By Pete Lieber

A few years from now, probably during a summer evening on the back porch after closing down the grill for the night and making sure his homework's done to my liking, I'll sit with my now 4-month old son and I'll tell him about the day he almost went to his first Phillies game. I'll tell him how he took his first road trip with mom and dad to Washington, D.C. to visit his aunt and godmother, my sister Pam, for the Easter holiday, and how we went to check out the Nationals home opener against our Fightin Phils at Nationals Park, merely because tickets are readily available there, and the Phils were in town. I'll tell him how I said "no" quite emphatically when Aunt Pam asked if I would take him too. I'll tell him how I feel babies and ballparks don't mix for a thousand reasons, the first of which being safety, the last of which being my opinion that public arenas and stadiums are not the place for baby show-and-tell.

Those are just general philosophies, but of course, the main reason I would not take Mathias, a.k.a. Matty, to the game is because I will not let his first live baseball game be witnessed, consciously or unconsciously, outside the confines of Citizens Bank Park. In retrospect, I wish he would have been with me yesterday, because not even a Phillies win could lift the shroud that had fallen upon my mood as I walked down New Jersey Ave. into the stadium and my phone started buzzing more times than I can remember in a single hour since September 11, 2001. We all know what those messages said, and as my pace began to decrease from an affable stride to an awkward schlepp, the cold chill of horrendous news that I've been lucky enough to avoid for a few years fell over me like the rush of rain water that left me soaked after Game 5, Part 1. At that moment, it would have been nice to see my son's smile.

Heroes don't have to be athletes. In fact, they shouldn't be unless they deserve to be. You shouldn't worship at the altar of a curveball, but admire the man who throws that pitch for how he handles the knowledge that he can. Your heroes should be the people in your life who shape who you are. Your heroes, if you're as lucky as I have been, should be your parents, your aunts and uncles and older cousins, your neighbors, teachers and coaches. As you begin to take the shape you want to take as a person, they help you mold the clay. Harry Kalas was one of my biggest heroes.

Since the sudden and saddening passing of one of baseball's all-time iconic voices and personalities yesterday afternoon, the outpouring of love for the life Harry lived has to seem mind-boggling to anyone who hasn't known the man his whole life. And I use "known" as a relative term. I met Harry once, but I've known him since the first time my father put on WCAU as I laid my little head down to sleep. The night we met we shared a few libations. We smoked a few "heaters," as he was apt to call them, along side a whole group of us in a Philadelphia bar like so many others have, and the night ended in hilarity and I'll never forget it. However, what rings so loudly to me since the news yesterday is that in all the years passed that I was amazed at his gracious attention to a random group of individuals who simply wanted to share in his company and were in the right place at the right time, is that there are so many other people who experienced that graciousness.

My father was a quiet man. He taught me how to play the game: hold a bat, throw a ball, use top hand to field a grounder, use two hands and come through to crow hop on a shagged fly. But my dad wasn't the type to sit for hours pontificating upon the subtle nuances of baseball. He was a Kensington man. He, like most other North Philly fathers I've known, lived by the old adage, "what have you done for me lately," when it came to Philly's professional sports teams. Everyone was a bum. There was no stadium besides ole Shibe Park. Dick Allen was the most powerful hitter he had ever seen. Chuck Bednarik's picture was next to the word "man" in the dictionary, or should have been. That was my pop. Hell, that was a lot of people's pops.

He got me into t-ball a year early because he knew someone at the Roslyn Boys Club, and because I begged him. I was trying to shape. He was trying to help mold. He would regal me with stories of By Saam, one of his heroes who ironically starting calling Athletics games in Philadelphia the year he was born, 1938. He broadcasted Philadelphia baseball till 1975, when I was all of one-year old. To my dad, Saam was what Harry Kalas was to me, so it took some time for my dad to warm to Kalas becoming the play-by-play goto man when Saam retired.

It was Kalas' relationship with my dad's biggest hero, Richie "His Whiteness" Ashburn, that helped a stubborn old North Philly guy latch on to something new. I remember the Astros series in '80, I remember winning Game One in '83 before we couldn't even tag up without falling down. I remember Harry's golden fog of a voice giving life and legend to such forgettable players as Don Carmen, Portfolio Altimarano, Rick Schu, Steve "the Jet" Jeltz, and so many others during those lean years in the late 80s. But through all that, I truly began to realize how lucky I was to have that voice help mold the clay of my love of baseball on April 18, 1987 when I listened to the electrifying call of Michael Jack Schmidt's 500th home run while sitting alone in my grandmother's bedroom in Port Richmond.

After that, I was just as happy home watching a game as I was sitting in the Concrete Jungle. After all, how would I decipher the symphony of each pitcher-batter struggle without Harry's voice calmly pulling me through it, without Whitey telling me why Lefty Carlton will go up and in with a fastball to set up that slider away. My father introduced me to baseball, but it was Harry Kalas who unknowingly taught me the game. Thousands of nights. Transistor radio next to my bed. On Prism at my neighbor's. On TV on a Sunday with my buddy Luke's grandpop, Mr. Bradley, the man who taught me what being a true Phillies fan was all about.

The golden fog that was Harry Kalas' voice was lifted from us yesterday. Usually when a fog lifts, the sun shines through. But for me, for the first time I can ever remember, I'd rather be at the ballpark now. There's no one left to carry me through the game. When I idiotically yell at my television, I don't want Chris Wheeler or Sarge, or Scott Franzke or Tom McCarthy to agree with me. They aren't qualified for a job that someone held for 34-plus years. No one is. I'd rather watch the game at the yard now, and imagine that voice in my head.

We walked back up New Jersey Ave. after the game to pick up our son and pack him up for the trip north to Philly. I've never needed to be in radio range of Philly sportstalk more in my life. I felt isolated being where it happened. I needed to be home, to hear the hundreds and thousands of personal eulogies. I needed to write this.

We walked up New Jersey Ave. and I saw the Capital Dome ahead of me, and although I usually don't wax philosophically about my patriotism, I found some small poignancy in the fact that Harry died in the capital of a nation where a man from Napersville, Illinois can fall in love with a sport, never excel in it, ply a trade that relates to it, and become more revered in a city the size of Philadelphia than anyone who ever played the sport there. I chuckled at that a little. Now I understand why Harry was so patriotic.

So on that future summer night, I'll tell my son about the first game he almost went to, and I'll tell him what happened on that day. And I'll tell him why it was important to me. And I'll tell him my Harry Kalas story if he's old enough, and maybe pull out some old DVDs if he lets his dad bore him with some "old stuff." I'll tell him how he sat on the couch with me and watched a game the week before the voice left us, that he once heard it live. I'll tell him how I felt Harry's death cut off the last link I had to my childhood. And I'll tell him to try and be as wise in picking out heroes as I've always tried to be.

5 comments:

  1. Well said, Pete!!

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  2. his voice made him your hero. your story makes him a legend. but your memories will make him immortal... thats one lucky kid you got.

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  3. pete... im a port richmond kid... a baseball lifer... with only allegiance to one team... your thoughts echo my experiences... my dad taught me the basics but harry and whitey taught me nuances... i am forever indebted... year after year of losses... but harry's voice made it a lot easier... the VOICE of Philly... he will be missed but always revered... at least no whe and whitey are rejoined in the booth in the sky... the two legends are smiling down on us in Philly... "hard to believe, Harry," says Whitey after the repeat!

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  4. also pete please pass along this idea to your following... there was a proposal today on 610 to have harry's "High Hopes" played during the 7th inning of phils games going forward... I think this a great idea... but to expand on it i think the Phils should play "High Hopes" during the 7th inning stretch of all games during next homestand... but after that do as the Yanks do with "New York, New York", as the Red Sox do with "Sweet caroline" and as the Cubs do with "Go Cubs GO" and have "High Hopes" played at the conclusion of all Phils home games... For an organization that has been around this long, they should have something... and since they do not, this is the perfect time to implement a new tradition, while remembering Harry at every game..

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  5. Terrific article, Pete! For someone like me who never knew or heard of Harry Kalas, you painted such an eloquent picture that I feel as if I knew him. The emotions you felt are now felt by me and many others who stumbled across your tribute. Thank you for sharing and I am sorry for your hero loss. A new one will emerge some day and that maybe your son Matty. :-)

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